Into Thin Air
Transfiguration Sunday - Year A
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Transfiguration Sunday - Year A
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Let us pray: Holy God, you encounter us in places where we seek you, and in places where we flee from you. Ease our fears. Open our ears and eyes to you, wherever and in whomever you reveal yourself to us. Prepare us to journey as you call. Amen.
Some of you may be familiar with the fact that the title for the reflection this morning is an echo of a famous book written by Jon Krakauer a number of years ago. It told the true story, from Krakauer’s perspective of a disastrous day on Mount Everest when a storm took the lives of eight people. More than a description of the tragedy which occurred on May 11, 1996, Krakauer’s book also served as a criticism in part of the way in which Everest has become a magnet for people who are able to pay their way to the summit by participating in fully guided climbing tours. Krakauer’s book, a bestseller, was also controversial. One of the people criticized by Krakauer was Anatoli Boukreev, a guide from another climbing party. Boukreev was involved in a rebuttal book titled “The Climb” which offered a different perspective on the fateful days leading up to May 11, 1996.
We could spend a long time on the topic of mountain and climbing culture, but it wouldn’t have much to do with the fact that this is transfiguration Sunday, except for the talk of mountain top experiences. It is however, that single connection, which leads me to reflect briefly on the story told by Krakauer, not for the details of those particular events, but for the drive which pushes people to climb high mountains. Coincidentally this week as I was making my way home from Ontario I had a stop in Edmonton for a day. I was staying at the home of Heather, my step-daughter. On Tuesday afternoon I turned the television on while I was getting ready for the flight home and was surprised to see what seemed to be a familiar scene. It turned out to be a fishing trip on Great Slave Lake, followed by an interview with Walt Humphries about northern prospecting. This was followed by a documentary showing the climb of a mountain in the Whistler, BC area by six neophyte climbers. To continue the climbing theme I revisited an email we received a couple of weeks ago from my old backpacking partner which included a home made movie documenting his ascent of Mount Olympus. Finally, I need to describe another experience from an earlier part of my recent trip. On January 17 I flew from Edmonton to Victoria to attend an event titled Epiphany Explorations - more about that in a minute, but first I need to describe the scene I witnessed as we flew across the coast mountains. The valleys were completely closed in by cloud, but as we descended into the Victoria airport, the highest peaks in the Coast Mountains were peeking out (no pun intended) of the clouds in brilliant sunlight. As the woman sitting beside me remarked as we witnessed this amazing scene - they look so easy to climb when you can only see the top of them don’t they. I agreed and commented that if we could only walk on the clouds, they would be easy.
In my preparation for this week’s worship, I ran across a comment from one person who mentioned the Celtic Christian idea of thin places - a place where the separation between the human realm and the divine realm is so thin that God’s presence is experienced in a particularly intense fashion. Coupled with the thin place that is described by the reduced oxygen at the top of a high mountain - where the air is literally thin, it seemed a fitting connection to this week when our readings tell of real and mystical journeys to the top of mountains.
In a world view where God is seen as being in the heavens above, it is only natural that mountains should be seen as being closer to God. As our knowledge of cosmology has increased and the sense that there really is no such thing as “up” except in relative terms, the view of God as being above, has diminished somewhat - appropriately I think - for anything that limits our ability to perceive of God in new ways is a detraction from our overall understanding of the divine presence in our lives. Having said that, most of us can still very much identify with an idea of God being above us - it is so pervasive in all of the biblical record that such images are hard to shake. It is therefore quite natural that many of the defining encounters with God described in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures occur on the top of, or in the vicinity of mountains. As Jon Krakauer’s book describes, the attraction of climbing high mountains is very great - and as technology and technique improve, the prospect of achieving the summit of a high mountain is greatly increased especially when money can replace in part the needed physical requirements. Even metaphorically we talk of mountaintop experiences, regardless of whether they include a real journey up a high mountain. I would definitely describe my experience at the Epiphany Explorations symposium this year as a mountain top experience despite the fact that it occurred only a few metres above sea level.
The real challenge, I’m sure we all know, is connecting mountaintop experiences with life in the valley. Peter didn’t want to come back down - he just wanted to stay there - erect a memorial cairn and revel forever in the experience. Jesus said no - which is understandable - there is no point in having the mountain top experience without connecting it to the experience of everyday living. Less understandable however is his direction to his fellow mountaineers not to say anything about what had happened. Most of us having experienced either a mystical or real achievement (I wasn’t sure if those two should be separated in that way - for mystical experiences are clearly real as well - but I’m lost on how to describe the difference in any other way) would want to tell others about it, even if only for the hope that some of our own experience might be translated to others so that they might get a sense of our excitement about the discoveries we made, and perhaps be led to have their own insights and share the new found wisdom.
I see transfiguration as an outward sign of transformation. Change of appearance, glowing with new insight, inner radiance - however you want to describe it - can be associated with a new outlook on life, a new attitude, a new purpose or mission. Transformation can begin with a mountain top experience, but it doesn’t take hold until we are able to live it - until we are able to integrate the new insights, knowledge, wisdom and ideas into the way we live our lives every day - so that we truly become transformed individuals and communities.
Perhaps that was behind Jesus’ comment to Peter, James and John. Perhaps he knew that if the experience had really affected the three disciples so markedly - they would not need to tell about it, for their very lives would show it. Then assuming that others were witnesses to the change affected in their lives, they could then tell of the experience which had made it happen. Of course, that’s only my speculation, but it does the fit the idea that we show our faith by the way we live our lives - that walk is more true than talk - what we do is closer to what we believe than what we say about what we believe.
So, on this final Sunday in the season of light - epiphany, I invite us to be transfigured - to let our presence shine with that same light - the light of God’s presence - as a sign of transformed lives. I invite us to move from the mountain into the valley of Lent - not some dark place - just the place of everyday living - for it too is infused by the presence of God - perhaps not with the mystical experiences that bring us into thin air, and not the events and occurrences that lead us to set up memorial cairns or brass plaques - but just the regular rhythm of lives guided by our faith in God, and God’s faith in us. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.